Everyone agrees that barbecue is a distinctly North American delicacy. But what you get will be very different, depending on where you order it. East of the Mississippi, barbecue means pork, while west of the mighty river-especially in Texas-barbecue means beef. Ribs are the stock and trade of Kansas City pit masters, while pork shoulder remains the cut of choice in the Carolinas. To confuse matters further, more and more barbecue joints are serving chicken, a reflection of the general lightening-up of the American diet.
As you feast your way along America’s barbecue trail, you’ll find considerable overlap in meat cuts, sauces, and cooking techniques. Here’s a guide to the basic regional styles.
In the Carolinas barbecue means pork, specifically pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt). Sometimes the meat is rubbed with a mixture of paprika, salt, sugar, and other seasonings. But just as often, pit masters forgo the seasonings. The pork shoulders are smoke-cooked over oak or hickory for 6 to 8 hours, or until tender enough to be pulled into shreds with your fingers.
Which is precisely what local pit masters do, for the ultimate Carolina barbecue is "pulled pork," a well-smoked and exceedingly tender pork shoulder, teased by hand into soft meaty shreds. Other pit maestros (particularly at restaurants) prefer to chop the shoulders into tiny pieces with a meat cleaver. The pulling or chopping is important, because it allows the tiny pieces of meat to soak up the sauce like a sponge. Unlike other parts of the country, Carolina-style barbecue is rarely served sliced.
Some cooks use vinegar-based mop sauces to keep meat moist during cooking. Other cooks simply let time and wood smoke do the job, without other culinary artifice. Sometimes, Carolinians go hog wild, barbecuing a whole pig in this fashion. The occasion is called a "pig picking," and it becomes a community event.
Another factor that distinguishes Carolina barbecue from that of the rest of the country is the use of sauces. There are three main styles, each different from the sweet, thick, red condiment most Americans think of as classic barbecue sauce. In northeastern North Carolina (the capital of Carolina barbecue), folks favor a thin, clear sauce made of distilled white or cider vinegar flavored with salt, hot red pepper flakes, and a little sugar. In the western part of the state, they often add ketchup or tomato sauce to this mixture. The result is a peppery, tart, red sauce unlike any elsewhere in the U.S. In southern North Carolina and South Carolina, the preferred condiment is a lurid yellow sauce made with vinegar, a sweetener (sugar, molasses, and honey are all used), and ballpark mustard. This is the sweetest of the Carolina-style barbecue sauces, but even it isn’t particularly sweet.
The traditional way to eat Carolina-style barbecue is on a bun with coleslaw and vinegar sauce.
Memphis knows its stuff when it comes to barbecue. This Tennessee city on the banks of the Mississippi hosts one of the world’s largest barbecue contests, The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, a three-day orgy of beer and barbecue, drawing three hundred teams from thirty states and half a dozen countries to compete for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.
Although you find all sorts of barbecued meats and even seafood in Memphis (locals like to say that the Mississippi Delta begins here), two cuts reign supreme: pork shoulder and ribs. The former is slow-smoked to fork-tender perfection, then served thinly sliced with barbecue sauce. But the ribs are what set Memphis apart from the rest of American barbecue.
Memphis is the home of the dry rib, a rack of baby back ribs or spareribs thickly crusted with a dry rub, then smoke-cooked and sprinkled with more rub before serving. My favorite are the ribs served at Charlie Vergos’s Rendezvous, a subterranean restaurant in downtown Memphis. Vergos uses a hybrid method for cooking his ribs: The meat is grilled directly over charcoal, but the grate is positioned high above the coals so the heat is somewhat indirect.
Dry-rub ribs are my personal favorite way of making ribs. The rub reinforces the flavor and texture of the meat without overpowering it, the way wet barbecue sauce sometimes does.
Kansas City rivals Memphis as the epicenter of American barbecue. Also located on the Mississippi River, it boasts more than 90 barbecue joints, ranging from Arthur Bryant-esque "grease houses" to proper restaurants with Tiffany-style lamps. Kansans are ecumenical when it comes to barbecue itself. Like their brethren in Tennessee and the Carolinas, Kansans love pork-especially ribs. Indeed, they’ve developed a whole vocabulary to describe the fine points of rib cookery.
"Rib tips" are the burnt edges of spareribs-greasy, gristly, and delicious. "Long ends" are the lean fore-sections of a rack of spareribs, and "short ends" are the shorter, fatter, meatier hind sections. Most succulent of all are "baby back ribs," which are cut from the sections closest to the backbone.
But Kansans are also broad-minded enough to share the Texas enthusiasm for beef. Since Kansas City was an important meat-packing center until the 1960s, the stockyards have traditionally supplied pit masters with brisket and less expensive cuts of beef. And like Memphans, many Kansan barbecue buffs rub their meats with a dry rub (a mixture of salt, paprika, and other spices) before cooking, but they don’t tend to use mop sauces. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Kansas City barbecue is the prominent role played by the sauce.
A typical Kansas City barbecue sauce is thick and sweet, a complex blend of ketchup or tomato sauce, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, onion, garlic, hot red pepper flakes, liquid smoke, and sometimes even apple juice. The most typical Kansas City sauce (certainly the best selling) is KC Masterpiece, a brand created by child psychologist turned barbecue mogul Rich Davis. But no survey of Kansas City sauces would be complete without a shot of Arthur Bryant’s sauce, a sharp, chalky, no-nonsense (and not the least bit sugary) blend of vinegar and paprika.
Kansas City is home to one delicacy seldom seen elsewhere. Called "burnt edges" (aka, "brownies"), they are the crisp, charred ends of smoked briskets. (Beware of "burnt edges" that are cut from the center of the brisket-they don’t have the fat content that makes the real edges so damnably delectable). The world’s best burnt edges come from Arthur Bryant’s, the bare-bones grease house immortalized by Calvin Trillin.
I’ll never forget my first taste of Texas barbecue-although it has been more than 20 years now. The place was Bodacious Barbecue in Longview, Texas. The meat was beef brisket and it was as smoky as a fireplace, as succulent as stew, and tender enough to pull apart with my fingers.
In Texas, beef reigns supreme. (Where else would you find a monumental bronze sculpture of a herd of steer?) The preferred cut of meat for barbecue is brisket and the preparation is almost Zen in its simplicity, consisting chiefly of time and wood smoke. The wood can be oak, hickory, or even mesquite. As for the time, well, a properly prepared brisket can spend up to 18 hours in the pit, resulting in a pinkish-red tinge around the edge of the meat. This is the smoke ring, a naturally occurring band of color found in meats that are lengthily smoked. Most Texan pit masters don’t even bother to use rubs or mop sauce.
The beef generally comes sliced (not chopped), and it’s more at home on a slice of cheap, soft, white bread than a bun. Texan barbecue sauces tend to be based on tomatoes and chile powder and are rather thin, tart, and vinegary. "We don’t go in for a lot of sugar," says Mike DeMaster, pit master of the original Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas, who gives his sauce its deep, rich flavor by smoking it in the pit.
Just how barbecue came to Texas is a matter of debate. The lengthy smoke-cooking in a pit recalls the barbecue of the Carolinas and Kansas City. The use of beef and mesquite suggest parentage with the carnes asados of northern Mexico. Perhaps both influences are at play.
Today, there are more than 3,800 barbecue joints in Texas (according to the Texas Restaurant Association), and most of them serve ribs, pork shoulder, sausage (jalapeño sausage is a popular item these days), turkey, and other meats.
But to taste Texas barbecue at its best, you’ve got to order brisket.
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